I have long benefitted from the writings of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. I just read an essay of his from this past week titled The Prophetic View of Sacrifice. Sacrifice was “central to the religious life of biblical Israel,” yet one can find frequent critique of sacrifices in the Hebrew Scriptures (and he quotes a number of those in his essay).
Rabbi Sacks points out that the real critique was not aimed at the institution of sacrifices, but of something “as real now as it was in their times.” He writes
What distressed them to the core of their being was the idea that you could serve God and at the same time act disdainfully, cruelly, unjustly, insensitively or callously toward other people. “So long as I am in God’s good graces, that is all that matters.” That is the thought that made the Prophets incandescent with indignation. If you think that, they seem to say, then you haven’t understood either God or Torah.
The first thing the Torah tells us about humanity is that we are each in the image and likeness of God Himself. Therefore if you wrong a human being, you are abusing the only creation in the universe on which God has set His image. A sin against any person is a sin against God.
Now, as then, the idea that one can wrong another – or, indeed to fail to love another – and think one can appease God by prayer or sacrifice or otherwise, fails to appreciate that “[t]o serve God is to serve humanity.”
There is nothing wrong in true sacrifice. The problem, Rabbi Sacks suggests, with a system of sacrifice
is that it can lead people to think that there are two domains, the Temple and the world, serving God and caring for one’s fellow humans, and they are disconnected. Judaism rejects the concept of two disconnected domains. Halachically they are distinct, but psychologically, ethically and spiritually they are part of a single indivisible system.
I believe that to love God is to love our fellow humans. To honour God is to honour our fellow humans. We may not ask God to listen to us if we are unwilling to listen to others. We may not ask God to forgive us if we are unwilling to forgive others. To know God is to seek to imitate Him, which means, said Jeremiah and Maimonides, to exercise kindness, justice and righteousness on earth.
These words are true always, but they are an especially good reminder in the time in which we are currently living. We surely need prayer to sustain us in these times. But it does not honor God
…for large numbers of people to gather in churches, risking infecting each other
…to suggest that certain groups, such as Asian, are responsible for the Covid-19, thus putting them in physical and emotional jeopardy from others
to fail to help those who are struggling more than we are from the effects of the virus.